I don’t like dashboards but I am willing to date one

Published January 2014

I probably have a few 2014 New Year resolutions that I have not fully engaged with yet (like blogging here more regularly) but I am having to tackle my priority one—developing a better organization-wide framework for monitoring performance and communicating the foundation’s impact across grantmaking, donor services, fundraising, and all our work.  I am not sure how often other evaluators get asked to help with organization-wide dashboards but in the world of philanthropy there is a lot of interest and demand.  I know my colleagues in other foundations get slightly nauseous looks on their faces when you ask about the dashboards in use in their organizations.  Not only are we not universally proud of them but often we just don’t like them. 

Now we are all pro-data, pro-measurement cheerleaders and more importantly we are all advocates for the utilization of data and evaluation to promote learning.  And we know how good visual summaries and graphics of data can increase understanding and analysis by people.  So why are we so underwhelmed by the dashboards we have? (And even admit hating to work on them?)

I am a committed outcome proselytizer and I enthusiastically promote Mario Morino’s Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity and Mark Friedman’s Results-Based Accountability (RBA).   I have seen how nonprofits and foundation staff are helped by clear process and outcome definitions, good and reliable measures, and simple summaries of change over time.  But I am still left underwhelmed, disappointed, and most often very worried that they are not getting at the “right” data that will help change behavior and achieve the results we want.

Dashboards in their parsimony do often lack context or enough context to satisfy a footnoting evaluator.  They do focus attention on key effort and strategies and I strongly believe (as Morino has advocated) that more nonprofits need to focus on measuring their work and outcomes as a primary operating capacity.  But I still feel that most are missing more than just additional context.  Recently I read Henry Doss’ assessment of how businesses need to apply more focus and measurement to the features they want to see in the ecosystem and not simply the outputs they produce and are often incentivized to produce.   This reminded me of Pete York’s frequent admonition that nonprofits need to focus more attention on the proximate cause-and-effect relationships they can impact.  Most of the performance and outcome measurement I have seen and experienced with foundations and nonprofits are misaligned with incentives, target goals too distant from the efforts, and ignore the influences in and on the ecosystems around us. 

Doss also noted that our short-term performance incentives are often misaligned with our long-term vision.  .  And in an increasingly VUCA world (my 2013 word-of-the-year, not “selfie”) keeping the alignment between our mission and our strategies (and, therefore, our performance metrics) is increasingly difficult.  Despite their usefulness in driving performance, dashboards can “miss the mark” around overall organizational mission if they do not address not just what we do and what we think those effects are but also how we should be influencing and responding to the influences of the changing world around us while still driving towards mission and impact.  Dashboards can’t and shouldn’t do everything but how can I develop a dashboard that helps staff keep an eye on performance, quality, and effective implementation while also holding everyone together in our collective mission?  I have often wanted to include organizational values and “how we work” in performance measurement—It is not just how much we do but they way we work which is important.  Glenda Eoyang’s “Devaluing Values” made me appropriately cautious and skeptical of organizational values without naming the practiced and observable behaviors we need to see and incentivize. 

And if I can get this dashboard completed by the second quarter of 2014 I will attempt another of my resolutions and go to yoga more regularly.

See these additional resources

Examples of foundation dashboards 

FSG’s The Foundation Performance Dashboard

“Making Sense of Your Foundation Data with Dashboards and Scorecards”